Opals top new basketball world order - Sports News - Fanatics - the world's biggest events

Opals top new basketball world order

By James Dampney 24/09/2006 02:26:21 PM Comments (0)

Australia will eye the 2008 Beijing Olympics with fresh confidence after finally securing a women's basketball gold medal some Opals thought might always remain just out of reach.

The planets aligned perfectly in Brazil over the past two weeks for the Opals to overcome a decade of near misses and earn the title of women's world champions, a deserved crown underlined by their 91-74 thrashing of Russia in the final.

Opals coach Jan Stirling believed the triumph may have signalled the start of a new world order, with some nations like China, France and the Czech Republic impressing alongside the traditional big four of USA, Australia, Russia, and Brazil.

"I think globally the basketball world is evolving and there are many wonderful athletes coming through now," said Stirling.

"I'm not sure whether it will stay with the same four nations in the next one."

Australia's journey began with a forfeit from a Lithuanian team that didn't reach Brazil in time.

It then proceeded through a perfect preliminary round, a quarter-final cakewalk over France and two victories over the host nation and its hostile crowd.

Russia's semi-final upset of the United States, snapping a 50-game American winning streak in major tournaments, added mightily to the drama before Australia wrote the closing chapter on a golden story.

Australia was the only team to complete the tournament undefeated, finishing a perfect 9-0, and at long last has a gold medal to add to dual Olympic silvers (2000, 2004), Olympic bronze in 1996 and two more bronze medals at the past two world championships.

"I didn't know if we were ever going to get it," veteran guard Kristi Harrower said.

"People asked me before I came here how we'd go and I honestly didn't think we'd get it.

"I say that because we didn't have the preparation, not because of our talent."

That preparation consisted of one solitary practice match against the US, five days before the tournament got underway.

But the Opals improved with every outing and were simply unstoppable in the final.

Penny Taylor had a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds to complete an outstanding tournament and pip teammate Lauren Jackson for world championship MVP honours.

Jackson finished as the event's leading scorer, adding 16 points and 11 boards, while Harrower (15 points, five assists) and Belinda Snell (12 points) also contributed.

Those four were the chief protagonists behind the unbeaten run, but every player performed their role to perfection.

A sign of the maturity of the new-look group was the fact none were perturbed at the prospect of chasing history in Australia's first world championship final.

"We did know that but it wasn't something that restricted us at all," Taylor said.

"It's an exciting thing to make history, but we knew we had to get the job done first.

"Now all that stuff is fantastic to think about."

Russian coach Igor Grudin felt his team's monumental semi-final win over the eventual bronze-medal winning US had taken too much out of his troops.

"We tried to play the same way we played against the US," he said.

"But our team just ran out of energy and we didn't have enough strength."

US coach Anne Donovan acknowledged others led by Australia had been closing in on for some time as her team failed to collect the gold medal for the first time in over a decade.

"It definitely impacts on women's basketball around the world," Donovan said.

"What people seems to have forgotten is we had this 50 game winning streak and won all these gold medals but for the last while it's been very competitive.

"We haven't walked away with anything (easily) since the (2000) Olympics in Australia.

"How we respond now is the key. We've got to fight to get it back and I know that we will."

Australia's focus will now turn to the Beijing Games in two years and there's every reason for confidence with the United States now in rebuilding mode and sure to be without ageing greats Lisa Leslie, who missed Brazil, and Sheryl Swoopes who came but played injured.

However, Harrower warned they would need to be far better tournament lead up than was possible this time.

"If people like Penny and Lauren can get even better plus the younger girls (Laura Summerton, Hollie Grima, Erin Phillips), we're in good shape but we need the preparation together, especially for an Olympics," said Harrower.

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